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Television and Child Literacy
Ever since it became a household fixture more than fifty years ago, parents and educators have asked the same question - is there such a thing as too much television? Can television interfere with a child's desire to learn to read? When television first debuted, it was touted as the wonder of the age, a miracle of technology that would bring the world into everyone's living rooms. Television would be an invaluable educational tool, opening up vast new horizons of knowledge. This was the dream. The reality was quite different. While television's "Golden Years," the 1950s and Early 1960s, did feature some wonderful documentaries together with a number of outstanding theatrical productions, on the whole TV quickly became, as Federal Communications Commission Chairman, Newton Minnow, put it in 1961, "A vast wasteland." (Mander) Yet, it is not only what television does or does not offer that presents a problem. The average American spends an enormous amount of time parked in front of the television. According to the Nielsen Ratings, Americans watch an average of 26.3 hours of television a week (Wilkins), with children and adolescents spending anywhere from 22 to 28 hours a week in front of the TV. (American Association of Pediatrics) What time children and adults give over to watching television is time lost to other activities. Regular Television viewers exercise less, often snack more, and so forth, but what is particularly disturbing is the effect such chronic television watching is having on the reading habits of our nation's children.
According to the Center for Research on the Effects of Television, television viewing produces one of two effects:
Direct effects due to the content of what is seen (in the programs or commercials)
Indirect effects due to the activity of watching TV, regardless of what is being watched. This second type of effect is very important, because it usually means that the more time Children spend watching TV, the less time they are spending doing other important activities (like reading, talking with others, getting exercise, playing games, being outdoors, etc.).
In part, children may read less and watch television more simply because their parents are heavy television watchers. In this case, it is a simple matter of behavior modeling such as all children employ. A child who sees his mother constantly on the phone will no doubt mimic that behavior, if only in play. (Bryant, 244, 1990) However, a lack of a strong interest in reading is not necessarily a sign of an inability to read, or an out and out aversion to reading. Interestingly enough, there does not seem to be much of a correlation between the sheer amount of time a child watches TV and his school performance. More important, is the child's attitude toward television programs in general. The following are the results of a study that compared children's viewing habits to the level of difficulty of the books they chose to read:
The amount of variance accounted for by amount of televiewing is, however, only 2% and it disappears when intelligence is partialled out. On the other hand, the orientation toward TV (rather than amount of televiewing) accounts for 13.7% of the variance on the level of-book measure, after intelligence scores are partialled out. But the beta weights are negative: Those who take TV more seriously (amount of televiewing and orientation toward the medium are uncorrelated!), choose lighter reading material. Children who claim to expend less effort in televiewing and whose orientation toward it is generally less serious, choose somewhat more demanding reading materials. (Manley-Casimir, 24, 1987)
Furthermore, the effects of television on a child's ability to read seem to change with age, and according to different populations.
Children who spend a great deal of time watching television do poorly in school but children who spend a moderate amount of time with TV perform better than non-viewers. The small negative relationship between IQ and television viewing masks some important subgroup differences, such as age (high IQ is positively correlated with viewing until the teens) and gender (with the negative relationship holding stronger for boys than for girls). Reading and television viewing are positively correlated up to a threshold of about ten hours of viewing per week. Only when television viewing rises above a certain level does it seem to be related to less reading.
Yet, how is it that television so adversely affects reading ability? Some of the causes have been alluded to already, but the relationship is more complex than simply the idea that television takes away time from other activities, or induces a preference for television viewing over reading, jogging, or painting, etc. It has been argued that television reduces a child's ability to comprehend words because television's endlessly changing images shorten the child's attention span. There is simply no time to focus on any one image and subject it to careful analysis. Simply put, the child carries over this "skill" into other situations, as for example, reading. The child who watches an excessive amount of television may also become hyperactive, and require an enormous amount of stimulation, stimulation that is simply not available in a book, or in the classroom. (Van den Broek, 2, 2001)
In addition, television viewing frequently results in a reduction of the powers of imagination. (Iowa State, 3, 1993) Children become so used to having everything played out for them down to the last detail, that to read a book is to be left high and dry in the middle of an image wasteland. Deprived of the vivid word pictures that the avid reader obtains while perusing a written work, the child comes to find reading dull and boring. Even in the case of academic reading, or even more simply in the case of reading directions on the back of a bottle of ketchup or a household cleaner, the ability to understand the text requires being able to envision what those words mean. "When talking about the difficulties children have with their reading, Meek (1988) suggested that these could be attributed 'not [to] the words, but [to] understanding something that lies behind the words, embedded in the sense.... so that the text means more than it says." (Gosling and Richards, 1999) Adults must learn to monitor their children's television viewing habits. Not only should they be more careful in selecting what their children watch, they should also watch with them, and help to answer any questions they might have regarding what they have just seen. Such a dialogue between parents and child is necessary not merely for the child's understanding of the often adult stories he has seen, but also if the conversation id carried on intelligently, it can teach the child to look for all of those hidden meanings. Television should be more than an electronic babysitter, a handy gadget designed to keep children quiet and well-behaved while their parents leave the room and do something else.
On still another level, parental attention can take away from the glamorous glare of the tube by engaging impressionable young minds in more genuinely interactive activities. Adults should read to their children, and open them up to all that the world of books has to offer. A child will be more likely to become genuinely interested in reading if he or she views reading as a pleasant and interesting experience. Let a child watch a children's story on television, and afterwards read that story with the child. So often, the written version of a story is so much more nuanced, and thought-provoking than that developed for the screen. And if a child finds a TV documentary fascinating, why not show the child how much more she or he could learn about that very same subject in a book. Television is so limiting and distorting in the stimuli that it provides that a child who spends much of his time in front of the set is, in effect, receiving his education from that source. Parents who do not take a more active role in supervising their children's learning risk serious consequences later on.
A study] evaluating the television's impact on the children's cognitive skills was designed and executed by the California State Board of Education during the late 1970's. It involved some half million children! Its mission (among others) was to determine the relationship (if any) between the quantity of TV watched and scholastic achievement (as measured by children's grades and SAT scores) within the public school system. Painstaking attempts to verify the data were made by professional in-home interviews followed by statistical multivariate analysis of the data. The results were astounding. Much like the true results of the Sesame Street programming study, the researchers found that the more television children watched, the poorer their scholastic achievements. Not too surprising, really. But take a look at this. This deleterious effect on a child's ability to learn was independent of three incredible factors: The child's socioeconomic status. The child's IQ. The child's study habits. In…[continue]
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